Even before having my insanely adorable daughter, I had for years been guilty of randomly telling people, usually women, with cute babies that I wanted to eat them up. Obviously they don’t think I’m a cannibal, though mostly because they don’t see the glint of hunger in my eyes. For some reason, exceedingly violent and aggressive verbs and phrases are attributed to the level of cuteness an object has. And though thinking something is cute is a subjective opinion, there is a nearly universal acceptance that babies with fat cheeks and puppies with big eyes draw out a primal urge to crush something.
To prove this counter-intuitive urge, Yale grad students Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragon performed two studies that gauged people’s overzealous reactions to cute animals, and recently presented them at the annual meeting for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in New Orleans. “We think it’s about high positive-affect, an approach orientation and almost a sense of lost control,” said Dyer.
The first study gathered 109 online volunteers to view and judge a series of animals that were either cute, funny, or neutral. Picture a kitten in a bowl of fruit, a kitten wearing a Groucho Marx mustache, and a kitten eating normally from a dish. The subjects were asked to rate the pictures both on cuteness and funniness, as well as judge how much they agreed with such sentences as “I can’t handle it!” or that the images made them “want to say something like ‘grr!'” The ridiculousness of admitting such silly phrases aside, the study showed that yes, people readily admitted wanting to squeeze cute animals more than funny or neutral ones.
The second part actually gathered 90 men and women in a psychology lab under the false pretense that they were there for a study on motor activity and memory. Each person was given bubble wrap, and were told to pop as many as they wanted, so long as they did something involving motion. Some watched a slideshow of cute animals, some watched a slideshow of funny animals, and some just watched neutral animals. Sure enough, those watching the cute slideshow popped more bubbles than anyone else. One hundred and twenty bubbles popped for cute animals, with 100 for neutral, and just 80 for funny animals. I guess the next study will be to see if comedies are so funny you “don’t want to pop bubble wrap.”
Of course, figuring out that this strange phenomenon exists does not identify the cause behind it. Our desire to care for such cute creatures that aren’t in our possession may generate the over-exaggerated feelings of aggressive protection, more so when the animals are in picture form and completely outside our squeeze zone. But perhaps, the researchers say, it’s not specific to cuteness. Overwhelmingly positive reactions sometimes appear negative, such as crying when you’re overly happy, or rioting after your team wins a major event. “It might be that how we deal with high positive-emotion is to sort of give it a negative pitch somehow,” says Dyer. “That sort of regulates, keeps us level and releases that energy.”
So, you see, guys, I’m not crazy. I just get really carried away when I think something is cute. Like all those hookers at the bottom of the lake. And my dog.